The question of whether high-powered women can "have it all" is like some nasty viral condition.
The issue lays dormant for a while only to periodically flare up into a full-blown (and irritating) media firestorm. The latest outbreaks being, of course, the frenzy of commentary around new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's pregnancy and Anne-Marie Slaughter's declaration that "Women Still Can't Have It All" in the Atlantic.
And like with a persistent virus, the repetitive cycle of quiet and controversy can make an observer despair that we'll ever truly kick the problem. Despite the media sound and fury, sometimes it's hard not to feel that while strong, smart women continue to start and run companies, they remain too rare at the top, and the world is only marginally more receptive and accommodating to their struggles. The work-life juggle, in other words, isn't getting all that much easier all that quickly.
If you sometimes fall prey to these sorts of pessimistic thoughts, Wharton professor Stewart Friedman has some research for you. Knowledge@Wharton describes his 20-year study of attitudes towards working parenthood:
In 1992, he surveyed more than 450 Wharton undergraduate students as they graduated. This past May, he posed the same set of questions to Wharton undergraduates in the Class of 2012. The survey asked questions such as: "To what extent do you agree that two-career relationships work best when one partner is more advanced than the other?" and "Two-career relationships work best when one partner is less involved in his/her career" [agree or disagree].
In 1992, men were much more likely to agree with such statements than women, according to Friedman. But in 2012, there has been a convergence of attitudes about two-career relationships: Men are now less likely to agree, but women are more likely to agree. "Young men graduating today are more egalitarian in their views and women are, well, more realistic," [Friedman] says. "The important point is that men and women today are more likely than the previous generation to share the same values about what it takes to make dual-career relationships work."
The same study also found that more women had aspirations for advancement in 2012 and fewer said they definitely planned to have kids (42% in 2012 compared to 79% in 1992). The fact that an increase in career ambition coincides with a decrease in determination to experience family life indicates the limits of the optimism offered by the findings.
Freidman's research doesn't show that women no longer face difficult trade-offs--just about every female entrepreneur can tell you they do. It just shows that these days the sexes are coming into discussions of these trade-offs with values and understandings that are more similar than in the past. And that has to be a good thing.
Why? As Betsy Myers, director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, tells Knowledge@Wharton in the same article: "Of the hundreds of women I have spoken to who have really made it big, most tell me they could not have gotten to where they are without their incredibly supportive husband...At least the ones who are still married say this."
Looking for more reasons to be optimistic about the situation facing highly ambitious women? Check out Facebook COO Sheryl's Sandberg's celebration of the many outstanding female congressional candidates that were just elected, calling the results "a great step forward for women."
Does Friedman's research mesh with your personal experience? Is the next generation of men more understanding of female ambition?